Is this a great time for R&B; singles?
Absolutely. In fact, things couldn't be better commercially. For months now, the Billboard Hot 100 has been saturated with the sounds of black America -- not just rap and dance music, but funk, soul harmony and R&B; ballads -- as acts like Janet Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, SWV, Silk, Shai, H-Town, Jade and Boyz II Men crowd the upper reaches of each week's list. On a couple of occasions, black music accounted for as many as 18 of the top 20 slots.
Is this a great time for R&B; singing?
Hell, no. Despite the unprecedented popularity of black music today, the quality of singing on R&B; hits is in a marked state of decline. It's not bad, just bland -- and leading us into an era singularly lacking in great voices.
Mary J. Blige? She's all right, but is she the new Aretha Franklin? Don't make me laugh. Likewise, Christopher Williams is no more the next Teddy Pendergrass than Boyz II Men are the new Temptations. And the only ways SWV can compare to the Supremes is in number and gender.
Really, now, what does it say about the state of things that George Michael is taken seriously as a soul singer?
Where once it seemed as if every soul singer hit the radio with passion and individuality, today's R&B; stars seem oddly anonymous. Apart from their material, can anybody but their mamas hear a difference between Silk and Shai? And as well as these new-jack vocal groups can harmonize, the sad fact is that there's not a memorable lead voice among them.
It wasn't always this way. Back in the day, it didn't take a music degree to hear the difference between the Coasters and the Drifters, the Temptations and the Four Tops, the O'Jays and the Spinners. Not only did each have an instantly recognizable lead voice -- the Tempts, in fact, had a couple -- but there was something equally unique about the way these ensembles handled harmony. Nowadays, soul harmony acts seem about as distinctive as jingle singers.
Not that the current crop of soloists is much better. Granted, these folks don't disappear into the background; if anything, they grab for as much foreground as possible, screwing their faces into scowls of simulated intensity as they embroider their material with note after note of unnecessary elaboration.
No simple songs
Unlike Sly & the Family Stone, these people won't sing a simple song. In their view, any tune worth carrying is worth dressing up, so they work that sucker to death, drowning the melody in a flood of notes. Some like to push upward, like a kettle coming to the boil; others prefer to grunt and moan, as if in the throes of
stomach trouble. But the most common device is an annoying melisma that finds the singer stuck in a sort of strangulated trill, darting around the note like a fly looking for a place to land.
What's missing from these performances is soul -- soul in the traditional sense of the term. Listen to the younger generation of R&B; stars, and it seems as if an entire generation has lost touch with the gospel-derived, emotionally evocative vocal style that has dominated black pop since the late '50s.
Sure, the youngsters know the mannerisms -- where did you think all that vocal showmanship came from? -- but they no longer understand the music's emotional roots or social context. Real soul singing conveys a sense of wisdom, maturity and experience, as if the vocalist had not just lived life, but learned from it; listen closely, and what you hear is pain, faith, hope and conviction.
Seen it all
That's why Otis Redding sounded like a man who'd seen it all and done most of it (despite the fact that he died at a youthful 26), and why Aretha Franklin is able to pull deep emotion from even the shallowest of pop songs. Because for them, soul isn't a matter of style but a form of expression, a sound that says something about who they are, where they're from, and what they believe. Not for nothing did soul singing spring from the church, because in that intermingling of faith and tradition is something that has touched the hearts of listeners since the early days of Ray Charles.
All that seems to be slipping away, though. Whether this lack reflects the diminished importance of old-time religion in the African-American community or simply reveals how empty showmanship has sucked the life out of a once-vital art form is hard to say. But here are a few ideas to consider:
* It's the beat, not the emotion. Like their disco forebears, house music producers love the sound of soul divas. But unlike disco, house had no time for full-fledged songs; most producers were content to drop a few well-chosen samples over the beat -- usually the most emotionally extravagant whoops and hollers.
While that added aural excitement, it destroyed the context of the original performance, leaving listeners with the impression that soul singing was all climax and foreplay. And as the house approach spilled over into mainstream pop through the success of Black Box and C+C Music Factory, more and more singers began to mistake its vocal excesses for standard R&B; singing style.
* The "get it, girl" fallacy. Nothing is more guaranteed to get applause from an R&B; audience than a show-stopping display of onstage intensity -- just ask anyone who ever saw James Brown's famous cape routine during "Please Please Please."
Some singers, though, have reduced that emotional release to the level of shtick, stopping mid-song to chew the scenery as avidly as any ham actor. It's one thing to push the limits, a la Patti LaBelle, quite another to slip into self-parody, as Jennifer Holliday too often does. And, frankly, some of today's R&B; stars make Holliday look like a shrinking violet.
* The curse of crossover. One of the reasons R&B; is selling so well these days is that stars like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston have pretty much broken down the imagined barrier between "black pop" and "mainstream pop."
But in the process, a lot of what made R&B; distinctive has been bleached into blandness. That's certainly the case with Houston, whose powerhouse voice rarely betrays its gospel-schooled roots (although if pop fans really do think "I Will Always Love You" is soul singing, that would go a long way toward explaining why Michael Bolton has been mistaken for the new Percy Sledge), and a similar lightening of style and tone can be heard in recent recordings by James Ingram, Vanessa Williams, Brian McKnight, Chante Moore and Peabo Bryson.
* That stuff is too old-fashioned. It could be that soul's sense of tradition is its own undoing. After all, there's nothing particularly youthful about the sound of hard-core Southern soul acts like Johnnie Taylor or the late Z. Z. Hill, and that may explain why those performers have few fans under 40. In fact, it sometimes seems that if it weren't for the samples that turn up on rap recordings, many younger listeners wouldn't hear classic R&B; at all.
All is not lost, though. There are some singers who manage to keep old-style soul singing alive and on the charts -- Alexander O'Neal, Mavis Staple and Marvin Sease spring to mind -- and plenty more whose hearts, at least, are in the right place. Listen to the likes of Lisa Stansfield, Levert, Johnny Gill or Regina Belle, and you'll know that the art of soul singing isn't completely dead.
But it sure could use a revival.